Is Rajendra Pachauri making things worse?

Andy Revkin thinks so. In a recent Dot Earth post, he writes that the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should either stop straying from a “just the facts” communications strategy or step down.

The offense, in Revkin’s mind, is Pachauri’s participation in a not-all-that-funny attempt at a joke begun by Richard Branson at a public discussion hosted by California Gov. Jerry Brown. Following up on Branson’s joke about offering climate deniers one-way tickets to leave the planet, Pachauri said:

.. those who are becoming obstacles in implementing what is rational should be made the responsibility of Sir Richard to give this one-way ticket to outer space. Of course space would be unfortunate to get some of these fellows.

And that kind of talk, Revkin says, is beyond the pale.

One could discount this as jocular banter, of course. And it pales beside some of the extremely vicious rhetoric that has developed elsewhere in the climate debate. But the full tape, outside the joking, actually makes things worse, to my mind. It vividly illustrates the blurring that I see undercutting the credibility of the climate panel just when it is needed most — as the organization gets into high gear on its fifth assessment of climate change, which will roll out in 2013 and 2014.

Comments have ranged from “oh please” dismissals that this is making a mountain out of a molehill to “tip of the iceberg” laments from those who have nothing good at all to say about Pachauri. And for better or worse (well, for worse, really), Pachauri is a lightning rod for criticism of the IPCC in many circles.

So which is it? Should Pachauri really be forbidden from making jokes? We’re talking about a guy who has been on the receiving end of years of what Revkin calls “vicious rhetoric,” much it challenging his integrity and most of it entirely undeserved, as far as I can tell. Can he be forgiven for showing little humanity every now and then? Or is the standard of public comportment for leaders of such organizations, those charged with providing the information required to save civilization, so high that not even a hint of feet of clay is permitted?

I don’t think there’s an obvious answer here. But I would point out that Pachauri long ago abandoned any pretense that he is an entirely disinterested, objective source of scientific information to our world’s policy leaders. He has never shown any reluctance to share the stage, as a colleague and ally, of policy advocates. For example, he tends to show up at training sessions for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, alongside the likes of scientist-turned-advocate David Suzuki. For Revkin to argue that the one-way-ticket joke marks some kind of line over which Pachauri should not have wandered strikes me as bit odd.

So the question is, has Pachauri been undermining the case of climate change action for years? If so, should he have been replaced years ago?

One thing lost from the debate is the job description of IPCC chief. Is it more than just a public face for the panel? Aren’t there some other skills, beyond communicating just the facts in a dispassionate manner (which is all Revkin seems concerned about) required of the position? Given the extraordinary challenge of herding thousands of scientists through the unprecedented process of compiling the assessment reports, and then overseeing the review of those assessments by 190-some political agents, maybe there are some other criteria that we can apply to a performance review of poor embattled Pachauri.

I am not saying he deserves to keep the job, nor am I arguing he should leave. But I am arguing that judging him based solely on his ability to avoid offending those who refuse to even accept the basic science at issue is perhaps a bit naive.

Are the winds shifting?

Maybe it’s just me, desperately searching for optimistic signals in the noise that dominates the mainstream coverage of climate change, but could there be something happening out there, something attesting to a new, more mature interpretation of the challenge facing society at large?

Item 1: The Economist publishes an impassioned lament. This from a magazine that for so long seemed althogether disinterested in the subject:

A HUNDRED years from now, looking back, the only question that will appear important about the historical moment in which we now live is the question of whether or not we did anything to arrest climate change. Everything else–the financial crisis, the life or death of the euro, authoritarianism or democracy in China and Russia, the Great Stagnation or the innovation renaissance, democratisation and/or political Islam in the Arab world, Newt or Mitt or another four years of Barack–all this will fade into insignificance beside the question of whether we managed to do anything about human industrial civilisation changing the climate of Planet Earth.

And that’s just the first half of the opening paragraph. Towards the end, the gloom descends even further.

Maybe the idea that Mali and Burkina Faso were once inhabited countries rather than empty deserts will seem queer, and the immiseration of huge numbers of stateless refugees thronging against the borders of the rich northern countries will be taken for granted. The absence of the polar ice cap and the submersion of Venice will have been normalised; nobody will think of these as live issues, no one will spend their time reproaching their forefathers…

A concession that an ecological crisis dwarfs those posed by mere financial forces is not what I expected from The Economist. It was a late-comer to responsible coverage of climate change and a reluctant convert at that. But this sort of thing suggests a conversion of Damascene proportions.

Item 2: Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, who writes despondently about Canada’s failure to address its embarrassing record on greenhouse gas emissions. Canada, you will probably already know, this week became the first, and so far only, nation to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Ibbitson is a center-right commentator in the Canadian sense, which means he is generally to the left of what passes for the center in the U.S., but tends to be more skeptical than supportive of “progressive” notions. This week, however, he made it clear he now shares at least some of the distress that has worked its way into the editorial desk at The Economist.

Canada gave its word to the world. Canada broke its word. The final confession was as shameful as it was inevitable. No one should feel anything other than ashamed. Not the Conservatives, not the Liberals, not us.

Ibbitson hits the nail on the head. Most green pundits would rather castigate Stephen Harper’s governing Conservatives for doing the bidding of their petrol-dollar associates than admit the truth, which is that Canada withdrew from Kyoto because it would have been irresponsible not to. Canada’s GHG emissions have risen dramatically instead of falling as it committed to make happen under Kyoto. So if the country didn’t withdraw before the end of this year, it would have faced the need to spend billions on offsets or face sanctions.

The real problem can be traced to Jean Chretien’s Liberals, who frittered away more than a decade of economic prosperity by doing precisely nothing to move away from fossil-fuel-dependency and toward carbon-neutral alternatives. By the time the Conservatives took over in 2005, the bed was made, and there was never any chance Canada would meets its Kyoto commitments. So the only thing left to do was save the taxpayer a few pennies by getting out when the getting was good.

By using the language of shame, Ibbitson makes it clear that this is not just another in a long list of lost opportunities for Canada to lead by example. It is cause for some serious soul-searching in the not-so-great white North. The Economist makes a similar admission from Britain,

I am not holding my breath for comparable shifts in the U.S. But it would be nice.

Two degrees of separation

Compare and contrast:

The team’s new examination of the paleo-climate record now shows that “a global warming of a couple degrees Celsius would basically create a different planet,” Hansen warned. It’s different than the one that humanity, that civilization knows about. If we look at the paleo record, the target of two degrees Celsius is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” [Source]

and

I think that we look at two degrees as an important and serious goal which ought to guide what we do … it ought to inform our sense of what needs to be done. It might well cause us or anybody else to say, jeez, we need to do more. But we don’t see it as akin to a national target. [Source]

The first comes from a report by KQED on warnings from top NASA climatologist James Hansen, speaking at this week’s annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The second are the words of U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern, speaking at the COP17 talks in Durban, also this week.

Is Stern just having trouble staying abreast of recent events in the field that informs his job? Well, 10 months ago, a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society had this to say about the subject:

The analysis suggests that despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2 °C. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2 °C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2 °C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change. Ultimately, the science of climate change allied with the emission scenarios for Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 nations suggests a radically different framing of the mitigation and adaptation challenge from that accompanying many other analyses, particularly those directly informing policy. [Source]

If you’re a sucker for this sort of thing, read David Roberts’s summary of the situation at Grist.

Worst argument ever

This sort of thing is what gives economics a bad name.

As soon as have settled down and have some time I will post a more reasoned response.

UPDATE: I can’t find the time to rebut so many ignorant statement. Brad Johnson has done some of the heavy lifting. But really, if this doesn’t make it clear how out of touch the authors is, I don’t know what will.